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US Department of Interior leads scientific integrity effort

DOIlogo2.jpgWhen the White House Office of Science and Technology policy issued a long-awaited memo on scientific integrity in December 2010, watchdog groups said proof of the effort’s success would come from actions taken by individual agencies. Quickest off the mark has been the Department of the Interior (DOI), which released a new policy today. DOI’s first attempt, issued in September 2010, was strongly criticized for letting political appointees who alter scientific findings off the hook. DOI moved quickly to try to take criticisms on board, and its final version, issued today, makes explicit that rules about sound science and not altering technical conclusions apply to everyone at the agency, political appointees included.

To bolster the new rules, DOI also appointed a Scientific Integrity Officer, Ralph Morgenweck, currently Senior Science Advisor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Morgenweck is respected for a scathing critique he wrote after a former colleague at the FWS, Dale Hall, issued an order forbidding biologists in the region Hall directed from using genetic information to inform designations under the Endangered Species Act.

The advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which filed a lawsuit against OSTP when its guidelines were more than a year delayed, welcomed the new rules as a “good faith effort to grapple with a basket of knotty issues.” Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of PEER, flags some potential trouble spots, such as ambiguity over whether government scientists at DOI may submit to scientific journals, whether they may speak to the media, and what whistleblower protections apply to them. But he’s broadly pleased by the new rules. “The real test will be when a complaint is lodged against a political appointee,” he says. “Will they have the courage to apply the new rules?”

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